A world in a cross
Have you ever read “The Chronicles of Narnia?” “Or Alice in Wonderland?” Surely you are familiar with "The Wizard of Oz." In each story, the characters step through a wardrobe, a mirror, or a screen door to enter a different world.
The cross of Jesus Christ is such a portal, but it is not a fantasy. It is the opening to a kingdom that Jesus described, the reign of God he invites us to inhabit. As such, the cross has more dimensions than we often consider when we say that “Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.” Have you ever asked yourself what that means, exactly? Let’s take a brief look at several meanings of the cross during this season of Lent.
The atonement is the most common way of looking at the cross. It says that someone has to be punished for their wrongdoing, as a criminal has to pay for his or her crime. The atonement is basically Jesus paying the penalty for our sin, taking our punishment on himself so we can be released. It is a wonderful concept and worthy of our deep gratitude. Yet, it might be considered rather coldly, like a transaction. It is hard for many people to feel drawn close to God who seems more like a judge or bookkeeper than a loving Father. For others, this is ample reason to love and serve God.
A similar theory of the cross is called the ransom theory. It posits that we have been captured and enslaved by the evil one, or Satan. Jesus offers himself in exchange for us, a ransom payment. But then he double-crosses Satan by rising from the dead. It has its appeal and even Bible verses to back it up, but if we think of the cross only in these terms, it gives Satan more power and credit than he deserves. We could say it makes God beholden to the enemy, contradicting the omnipotence of God.
In another sense, the cross represents Jesus’ perfect obedience, while we could never obey God faithfully because of our innate sin. Jesus bore the weight of the Law and went all the way to the cross in obedience to God, in spite of the terrible pain he had to suffer there. In this perspective, Jesus is seen as a noble servant, willing to sacrifice himself for our sake. But it also hints at a tyrannical God, a difficult picture to appreciate and frankly, inconsistent with the gospel message of forgiveness.
Another perspective has Jesus dying on the cross to demonstrate the deadliness of sin. In a world bent on revenge and violence, Jesus takes it upon himself and shows us how futile it is. He hangs there to give us a picture of how far we will go in our depravity: we will even kill the God who made us and loves us. Then he lives beyond that terrible event, forgiving us for our foolish and hateful ways. God’s love cannot be killed, but will endure to lead us into a life of forgiveness and hope and love. This perspective might seem less redemptive to many than it ought to be.
This is only a partial list of the countless interpretations and writings about the cross of Jesus Christ. It seems that any one of these theories by itself is inadequate to encompass what Jesus did for us on the cross. Each of them is a helpful dimension in its own way, and it might be best to consider them as different facets or layers of a deeply meaningful and transformational event Jesus came to undertake for our sake.
Still, for me, the most helpful understanding of the cross is also the most simple: the love of God. The cross is Jesus coming to meet us where we are in our most depraved and helpless state. Jesus died to show us that even the worst we might throw at God, even the attempt to brutally kill God himself, cannot keep God from loving us. On the cross we see that God’s heart is softened toward us. And so as we gaze at the cross, our hearts are softened toward the God who loves us so.
In the end, we cannot explain the cross of Jesus. We can only gaze at it and receive what God offers us there. It is you alone, in the solitude of your unique place and your specific story, who must look at the cross and see God’s immeasurable love hanging there, for you. The longer you gaze at it, the more you realize that there is a whole world contained in that cross, a world of healing and eternal love that is yours because Jesus died for you.